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Mayor offers hope for aquarium

Mayor Dick Greco offered the Florida Aquarium a $500,000 cash advance and some reassurance in troubled times Friday, but those two bits of aid will not solve all of the aquarium's problems.

Greco said he will propose to the City Council next week that the city spend a half-million dollars in contingency funds to help the aquarium catch up on its past-due bills. It would have to be repaid by Oct. 1, 2000.

The mayor also went on the record to say there's nothing to recent talk about the city selling the aquarium. While Greco tentatively sounded out Busch Gardens and Disney about their interest in the facility, he conceded it doesn't make sense to try to sell the aquarium if no one wants to buy it.

"I've never had a "For Sale' sign on the aquarium," Greco said. He is still interested in developing the waterfront around the aquarium into a larger tourist destination, but he doesn't see the aquarium leaving the city's ownership. For one thing, Greco said the city's $101-million in aquarium bonds do not allow for such a sale.

"We're going to have to bring tourists here," he said. "That's why we're working on Ybor City, the aquarium, the waterfront, tying it all together with the trolley.

"I want each and every one of you to know: We're totally, absolutely 100 percent committed to making this fly. It's ours."

Aquarium supporters welcomed Greco's announcement because it will make it easier to raise money from the private sector.

The recently created Florida Aquarium Foundation is working to bring in new corporate donors, exploring opportunities for getting government grants and philanthropic gifts and working to reinvigorate the aquarium's membership base.

In that last area alone, aquarium fund-raisers see both a history of missed opportunities and the potential for growth. The aquarium's membership base has dropped from 28,000 to 7,500 households.

"We lost them because we didn't cultivate them," aquarium foundation chairman Thomas duPont said. "All we have to do is give them a reason to be a member again."

But like everything else about the aquarium these days, that will require a balance between living within the aquarium's budget and investing for its future.

Even with the city's $500,000, the aquarium still faces an operating deficit of $1.2-million at the end of its fiscal year in September. City Finance Director Henry Ennis warned aquarium officials not to expect any further help this year and advised them to find the money they need by cutting expenses further or increasing donations.

Reducing expenses will be difficult. Officials outlined plans to cut $620,000 from the advertising budget in the next 12 months, but a third of the staff already has been laid off or demoted, making further large-scale staff cutbacks unlikely.

With no further help in sight from the city, aquarium board of directors chairman James Ferman said it might be necessary to use unpaid private pledges as collateral for a short-term bank loan. The aquarium has about $3.7-million in money that has been pledged but not paid.

That, however, would not be the last challenge.

Ennis said city officials expect the aquarium to do what it takes to break even next year _ something that the aquarium's board did not expect to do for at least two years.

Consultants with Arthur Andersen gave the aquarium a study two weeks ago saying that a break-even point could be achieved in two years, but only if the aquarium can cut some expenses while simultaneously making up to $5-million in improvements to its exhibits and facilities.

The aquarium's board members were poised to adopt the Arthur Andersen plan as their own Friday until some members pointed out that would still leave the $1.2-million operating deficit this year and would not include the kinds of aggressive budget-balancing the city demands.

"There are some inconsistencies that need to be resolved," said Carl Mentzer, chairman and chief executive of SunTrust Bank of Tampa Bay.

Aquarium directors didn't bridge that gap Friday, resolving instead to accept Arthur Andersen's recommendations and to continue looking further for ways to settle some of their profound financial paradoxes.